How a Fourth-Grader Turned Me Into a Book Detective

column | Literacy

How a Fourth-Grader Turned Me Into a Book Detective

By Kimberly Rues (Columnist)     Mar 28, 2019

How a Fourth-Grader Turned Me Into a Book Detective

This story is part of an EdSurge Research series about how educators are changing their practices to reach all learners.

In almost every way, it was an ordinary day in the library. Fourth graders chatted as they milled about, making book selections and needing the occasional reminder that library is not the same as recess. In hindsight, though, it was a day when magic sparked. That was the day I had my first conversation with Jane.

Each year, Missouri’s school librarians association nominates a handful of fiction books for its annual middle grade book award. The list covers books aimed at fourth- through sixth-grade, with reading levels that vary widely within that range. When the list comes out, the fourth graders dig in to tackle the books, even though some of the novels can be daunting. Many selections contain deeper themes, more complex plots and sophisticated literary devices. The kids push beyond their comfort zone, seeking to meet the challenge issued by me: Read six of the ten books and at the end of the year we’ll gather for a pizza party to celebrate your accomplishment.

Some people think that it’s the pizza that draws them to the challenge, but I know that no amount of pizza is enough to lure a kid to read six challenging novels in a year. They might start out chasing the pizza carrot, but in the end, they’re there for the chance to talk about the stories with one another. The pizza is just a bonus.

This year, one of the books on the list, “Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story” by Nora Raleigh Baskin, is a novel told in voices. It tells the story of four young people around the country experiencing the Sept. 11 attacks—one voice per chapter, alternating characters from beginning to end. It’s a challenging type of book to read, as your mind is tasked with keeping track of which character is speaking and piecing together a story arc that gets interrupted whenever a new chapter begins.

Jane had decided she was up to the challenge. Her teacher, Mrs. Lanning, wanted to support her students in taking on tough reads, and called me over for a quick conference. Another student in the class had tackled this same story earlier this year, and while she finished the book, the student had reflected that she had some holes in her understanding.

Part of my job as library media specialist is to confer with students and provide them guidance, not only in choosing books to read, but also checking for comprehension and making sure that the book is a good fit. Listening to feedback from students, observing the struggles (and successes) they have while reading is a crucial part of my work. So when it came to “Nine, Ten,” I had some ideas of how to make the text more accessible to Jane and get her off on the right foot.

And so it began.

The conference started like most of them do—with some teacherly guidance from me on how Jane could increase her comprehension. I pointed out that four different characters tell the story in turns and that the shift in voice is critical to understanding the novel. I wrapped up our conversation with a couple of suggestions to accommodate for that structure.

I also offered to touch base with Jane after she had read a few chapters just to see how the strategies were working for her. During those conferences, we collaboratively tweaked the process. Each time we met, our conversation shifted a bit more from the teacher-guided talking points I start off with to Jane sharing her own ideas for making sure she didn’t miss a single key detail.

She had taken my suggestion to read each character’s story straight through—essentially turning the novel into four separate novellas, each from a different perspective. But as she read, she started jotting down poignant tidbits and character motivations. During our meetings, I found myself in awe of the details she had uncovered, deepening not only her understanding of the book, but mine as well.

In our school library, we strive to be a true learning community, where students and librarians engage with one another and help each other grow. As Jane finished the book, I asked her if she might be willing to capture her process in a reader’s guide—a tool that might help others enjoy the story to the depth that she had.

A draft and several edits later, we had a piece of work, perfectly sized to fit inside the front cover of the book, ready to support readers in getting the most out of the story. In her guide, Jane noted that the novel’s structure can be confusing due to the shift in voices from chapter to chapter, and she listed several suggestions for managing that confusion. She proposed reading each character’s voice separately, and taking the time to recognize that each chapter also brings a shift in setting. And she also added her detailed character notes and general reflections.

That guide has now been added to each copy of the novel in our school library and shared with our district librarians for use in their copies as well. It even scored a retweet from the author. All told, a resounding success. But that wasn’t the end of it.

As Jane continues to read, digging into other novels on our award nominee list, she is putting into practice the careful attention to detail she honed while reading “Nine, Ten.” She notices the bits and pieces of an author’s craft:

  • Examining the symbolism of bird-related words used by Joan Bauer in “Soar”
  • Asking questions about black history while unpacking “Walking With Miss Millie” by Tamara Bundy
  • Recognizing that novels told in voices vary in structure as she read “Save Me a Seat” by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan.

When the Student Becomes the Teacher

Jane has, in no uncertain terms, made me a better reader. Since working on the reading guides with her, I have slowed down, taking time to savor those moments where the symbolism shines, noting when the author has pulled in fascinating nuggets of history and finding the joy in unpacking the author’s craft.

Her enthusiasm is contagious—the reading community in her classroom has been strengthened, her conversations with her friends about books goes deeper and she feels empowered to tackle books that she previously described as “maybe too big.”

Her teacher will tell you that Jane was a strong reader at the beginning of the year—capable of making predictions, noting the story elements and expressing her reading accomplishments in the number of pages read in an evening. Now, her teacher says, Jane pays attention to a character’s perspective, asks probing questions, and doesn’t always take the novel at face value, choosing to dig in and find the treasures left there by the author.

She considers herself a “book detective,” and she’s showing her friends how to do that too. When she reads, she’s constantly taking notes, asking questions, seeking expert answers, spotting precise word choice and piecing ideas together.

As educators, we often think we need to have all the answers and use that expertise to guide our students. For me, my conversations with Jane have driven home a powerful lesson: Sometimes the most powerful learning happens when the student is the teacher.

What happens when we open ourselves to our students’ thinking, when we let their ideas guide our work, when we let them lead us, teach us, show us their own perspectives? I’ll tell you what: magic.

And it all started with a simple conversation on an otherwise ordinary day.

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

Next Up

Stories of Change: Educators Shift Practices to Reach All Learners

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up